Wary as I might be (like most historians) of historical analogies, there’s an obvious one out there that could stand some use. I think about it every time I read a story about how young and innocent men and women, most but not all of them Muslims, have snuck out of their home nations to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq. The first thing I think about is, “This is pretty much like the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades”.
Before all my lefty friends descend upon me in their full wrath, let me be really clear about what is and is not similar. The values, ideologies, purposes, and moral character of the two cases are 110% different, alien to each other. I think of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as genuinely heroic if also slightly naive; I think of ISIS as a horrific movement that I would love to see scourged from the planet and I think anybody who joins them is at best a dupe in service to evil.
So what’s the point of the analogy, and what can we learn from it? The thing is that the mass media in the U.S. and Western Europe acts as if it is baffling when promising, bright and often quite “Westernized” young people want to join ISIS. That often leads to polite, careful, nervous attempts to anatomize Islam as a religion or the “culture” of Islamic communities as if they hold the answer.
The answer in some sense is the same as the answer about young foreigners who flocked to Spain to fight the fascists. What the people who evaded legal restrictions were seeking was the chance to really matter in the world, to put their lives on the line to shape the future in a situation where it seemed to genuinely hang in the balance. They did so in a context where the everyday world around them offered nothing more than stasis and passivity to ordinary citizens and a world where the people in charge during their lives had largely proved that they were feckless, arrogant and untrustworthy at best. If you were nineteen in 1937, your life began in the midst of catastrophic war, your childhood was in an era where heedless plutocrats speculated carelessly and governments demonstrated their near-total inability to understand the economic systems they supervised. You came of age in the middle of a global depression full of misery, and even if you were hopeful about the countermoves of social democrats, you had to wonder why anyone thought that eating your vegetables, studying hard in school and being a good citizen was either a secure or existentially meaningful way to look at your own future, The Waltons notwithstanding.
The reason the media professes to be mystified by the charisma of ISIS for some young people is that they aren’t prepared to countenance the degree to which the world that’s on offer to those young people, Muslim or otherwise, is at best something to be resigned to. Even for people born in privilege, this is a world full of short-term and long-term precariousness. You can’t look forward to working for a company that will reward your long service. You can’t acquire skills that have lasting market value. You can’t count on social progress in your world, or expect basically good governance from your nation. Technological innovation seems less likely unless you’re looking forward to the next social media app. There isn’t that much to believe in any longer, no matter where you live.
Most importantly, many people, old and young, have every reason to think they don’t matter as individuals. The financial inequality tilting the entire planet towards a smaller and smaller elite is matched by a kind of spiritual and imaginative inequality. Yes, sure, online media offer some new avenues for democratic participation in culture-making, often in a better and richer way than Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. But otherwise? Liberal democracies around the planet have stunted horizons, barely daring to tackle minor bureaucratic reforms, and they’re frequently captured by political elites that increasingly seem like aristocracies. Social mobility seems as much a quaint thing of yesteryear as slide rules and telegraphs. Nobody goes from the mail room to the boardroom now. It doesn’t matter if these perceptions are not empirically accurate: they are the way the world feels to many people. Much as I intensely disliked what he advocated as the answer to the problem he identified, I still think Paul Berman was right in 2001 to call out liberalism for its “coldness”, to remark on the ways that defending liberalism and democracy seems abstract, distant, and passive. In fact, that a commitment to liberalism seems only like defense, never like movement or change or improvement.
In the search for something warmer and more sustaining, something that promises a direct relationship between being an individual and changing the world, there is not a lot of out there at the moment. Small surprise then that ISIS and similar movements strike a chord. No less a surprise that a big, dumb, clumsy quasi-empire like the United States and Western Europe can barely even understand that this is what they’re facing, let alone have anything like a remotely honest conversation about what it means to stand against that moment. Small wonder in some sense that ISIS volunteers and anti-ISIS volunteers have some similar motives.
That’s what burns me so much about the wider coverage of US attempts to counter the influence of ISIS and their allies in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. For the last six months, we’ve had a steady flow of articles in the New York Times and other respectable, mainstream publications that have privileged access to sources in the US military and government about how previous strategies in the region have failed despite considerable expenditure of funds and efforts, and in particular how the groups we’ve chosen as our allies and surrogates are poorly trained, indifferently led, and half-heartedly committed. And then the pundits and the journalists and the mostly-anonymous sources harrumph and ponder and pontificate about how to do it right. Which is just silly. There isn’t a way to do it right as long as we remain what we are, how we are. Doing it right would involve living up to our potential as a liberal democracy rather than down to our ersatz empirehood. Or it would require thinking more clearly about what we are doing as an empire in ways that I think the United States is incapable of achieving.
I’ve found some of the smart scholarship on the history and character of empires published in the last few years very useful for rethinking the rather kneejerk understanding of empire as a massively and inarguably worse and more oppressive political form than nationhood, particularly Fred Cooper and Jane Burbank’s sweeping history of empire as a political form and Charles Maier’s thoughtful reflections on similar themes. These are not apologies for empire, let alone advocacy of it, but they do open up a more analytic understanding of why empires, including modern Western ones, tend to experience certain kinds of recurrent crises and to fall prey to some of the same self-defeating uses of violence and injustice even if they also avoid some of the distinctively modern failures of national, Westphalian sovereignty.
One of those recurring problems is the relationship between imperial cores and their clients on their frontiers. What can the core offer to agents or groups at its periphery who might protect or enhance the power of the center?
Not incorporation or membership: that’s the whole point of the different between empires and nations, that at least in theory the autonomy of actors at the periphery or frontier is a selling point for both empire and client alike. In practice, empires usually forget that autonomy both because of their own chauvinistic ideologies, how the center justifies its centrality, and because some of the value of empires to core and periphery alike is in the standardization of mechanisms of exchange, in the protection of travel, in the regulation of commerce, all of which can slide very quickly into other kinds of constraint and aggression.
No, what the core can offer is resources that allow its clients or agents to enact their own goals and achieve supremacy over rivals beyond the edges of imperial influence. In return, the empire should not expect ideological, religious or cultural loyalty. Because being loyal to an empire for its values, its culture, its way of life, is strictly for dummies. The empire will not respect that loyalty because it doesn’t see its frontiers as “home”. Committing to empire in that sense involves selling out authenticity, selling out everything that makes you a part of your own historical world, in return for nothing at all. So the only collaborators who show up when that’s the deal are naive, stupid or desperate.
Maier is willing to concede that maybe the post-1945 United States isn’t fully an empire in the classic sense, but he insists that it has had many of the same characteristics in its relationship to the world and that Americans have had a hard time grasping the implications of that relationship, as the citizens and leaders of empires often do.
The point is not to seek more brutal or unprincipled clients, either. This is what “realist” thinkers in the Cold War and since have habitually preferred, that the United States or the West should select clients who will do whatever dirty work the empire can’t be seen to do. That’s just the mirror opposite of asking groups you support to show their fealty to Mom, apple pie and Chevrolet, but it’s the same mistake. Empires pay clients on their frontiers just so the clients won’t attack the empire and will attack those who would. That’s it. They’re not employees, they’re not citizens, they’re not servants or slaves.
So what can we offer to fighters in Syria? Weapons, cash, resources. Fine. What they do next is up to them. That’s their reason for asking for those things: so they can do what they want and fight whom they choose, to be who they already are. They might indeed eventually choose to fight the empire that gave them the weapons in time. That, too, is a common part of the history of empires. But that’s what the bargain is all about, if the empire chooses to pursue it. The pundits who pretend that we should be looking for good, loyal, liberal democratic capitalist evangelical Christian American-loving Syrian proxies who will follow our orders and obey our strategy should really just say that we’re looking for idiots and unicorns, because it amounts to the same thing. Especially in the Middle East, there are many reasons to remember that giving America the loyalty it imagines it requires is a way to end up abandoned and desperate whenever the shooting dies down for a moment. Anyone who is paying attention knows what America does, what even the least racist and brutal empire will eventually do, which is betray anyone who actually believed in it. We encourage people to paint targets on themselves and then we look the other way when they’re murdered and tortured and then we have the incredible cheek to act like nobody notices when we do it.
In both cases–the search for proxies to fight wars we can’t or won’t fight, the desire to stop people from going to join ISIS (or to fight it)–the real problem is with the level of hallucinatory self-regard in American appraisals of the situation. Maybe that’s another weakness of empires. Maybe that’s a reason to start thinking about a world that’s organized around neither nations nor empires, since both constructions of sovereignty frequently wrap the world in layers of injustice, stupidity and delusion. Pundits keep talking about “non-state actors” without being even slightly interested in talking about them, much as the Pentagon and the politicians jabber on about Syria without wanting to acquire even the slightest curiosity about the specific humanity and history of the people who are dying, killing, leaving or hanging on there.
Maybe the only way to move forward is to stop being what we are and have been, stop wanting what we’ll never get. Maybe it takes understanding and curiosity before demands and judgment. Maybe it takes acknowledging that what we’re offering many people at home is powerlessness, insignificance and passivity while we claim to be providing the opposite. Maybe it takes acknowledging that all we have to offer is money and guns and have no right to tell anyone else how to use them, since we don’t permit anyone else to tell us the same. If we want to offer more at home and the world, the problem is not out there, it’s in here. We’re the worst victims of our many and myriad illusions, though by no means the only ones.